Moving from Trauma to Recovery

If your child needs mental health services, most people would assume the only place to go would be Children’s Hospital Colorado. But there’s a hidden gem tucked away at University of Colorado School of Medicine - the Child, Adolescent and Family Psychiatry Clinic. 

Here, pediatric psychiatrists and psychologists provide comprehensive, evidence-based psychiatry services for patients from infancy to 18 years old.   

Dan Savin, MD​, is at the heart of the program. He’s director of the clinic and professor of psychiatry at University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“One of the things that’s great about our service here is that we can treat whole families: parents with mental health issues can be seen in the adult clinic and kids in child clinic, or we can see families as a whole,” he said. 

Some of the children Dr. Savin and his team see may have developmental delays—speech and language problems or difficulties communicating with others—while others have autism or are oppositional with disruptive behaviors. Many have experienced trauma and loss. 

“In our Early Childhood Clinic, which serves kids from 0-6, we do a lot of work with the parents and children together,” Dr. Savin said. “When we observe parents play or talk with their kids, we can help them learn to play and talk in a manner that will help their child overcome some of their struggles.”

Dr. Savin explains that the family therapy program is an important rotation for child psychiatry fellows and trainee social workers.

“In our clinic, faculty can use a video link to observe how a fellow or social worker works with a patient. Too many people in a room can scare some patients, so this is the best way to provide feedback and help trainees without relying on second-hand information.”

Alongside the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinic, Dr. Savin runs a refugee mental health program for children and adults.

Though it might seem like child and refugee psychiatry would have little in common, Dr. Savin believes the two inform one another.

“There can be similar levels of trauma in some of our child cases and our refugee work,” he said. “A child and family psychiatrist knows that people are affected by everything around them—their family, social situation, school, financial situation. The refugee alone, for example, isn’t the whole story. How did they get there? What’s their social situation? What historical factors contributed to their migration? What cultural factors are important for us to understand?”

However, an understanding of health and social service systems is also key to helping both child and refugee populations.

“I try to discuss this with our trainees as I’ve gained a lot of appreciation for the barriers that prevent people from getting care, specifically how the various social service systems and insurance systems work or don’t work for our patients,” Dr. Savin said.

“Most refugees are dealing with trauma and loss, and for them, the most important step to recovery is living in a safe place. That includes having food, clothing, shelter and school for their kids. Often we need to try and help with these things. And then we try to help them through talk therapy: solving day-to-day problems, separating past from present, anything that helps them feel like they aren’t constantly in a traumatic place.”

To some, spending your days working with people who have experienced trauma may be daunting. But Dr. Savin says many of his patients have tales of hope. 

“There’s a lot of resilience. There are kids who graduate high school who have gone through situations where you might think that outcome wouldn’t be possible. It’s amazing seeing how well some of our refugees are doing, and how they’ve raised their kids to do really well. When you see someone who has overcome a lot and is facing life’s challenges in an honorable way, it’s inspiring.”

Brian Rothberg, MD​, says Dr. Savin is exceptionally humble about his contributions. 

"I have known Dan since 2003, when I was a second-year resident in the psychiatry department, and I am honored to consider him a mentor, a colleague, and a friend. His work with refugees and children are areas where he particularly shines and he has quietly, behind the scenes, built a wonderful program for residents and other trainees to have experiences working with a culturally diverse patient population. He is a paragon of professionalism," said Dr. Rothberg. 

As for the future, Dr. Savin is hoping to build the profile of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinic and the great work of his team.

“We do get referrals from Children’s Colorado when their services are full, but we’re also able to take referrals from within the university system,” he said. “Anyone who works at our Anschutz campus, no matter their role, has insurance we accept. Their children are eligible to be seen at our clinic—we are accepting new patients!”

For more information on the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinic at University of Colorado School of Medicine, please visit here or call 303-724-1000.

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